Medieval Fortifications and Castles in England

by Ross Thibodaux

Upon the death of King Edward the Confessor in 1066, England was left without a clear heir to the throne. Three main contenders: King Harold III of Norway; Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex; and William, the Duke of Normandy, laid claim to the crown and fought to see who would become king. William emerged victorious in late 1066 with a victory over Harold at the Battle of Hastings. This established a long succession of English kings holding the title of Duke of Normandy. The legendary battle fought at Hastings is depicted in one of the most famous works of art representing English history, the Bayeux Tapestry (figure 1) (Freeman 1901). In addition to this famous work there are a number of architectural monuments that date from the same period which commemorate the historic events and document the struggle for control that continued after the battle.

Figure 1. A section of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting a battle scene from the Battle of Hastings. Norman soldiers are on horseback while the Anglo-Saxons retaliate on foot.

In order to maintain control over the Anglo-Saxons that vastly outnumbered the new Norman citizens, William introduced a feudal system in which he granted land to subjects in return for their military service. This increased the need for strongholds to house the armies controlled by his vassals and ushered in a program of castle and fortification construction (Freeman 1901).

Prior to the Norman conquest, fortifications in England were crudely built and it was no surprise that they proved to be ineffective. As king William of Normandy brought his knowledge of military fortification to England and promoted the use of castles to control the subjects within his new kingdom. He incorporated the use of several types of fortification, but the most prevalent was the motte-and-bailey type. The motte consisted of a raised mound of earth upon which a wooden keep, or military tower, provided a place for soldiers to stand guard over the surrounding territory (Armitage 1904). The bailey was a small, fenced in enclosure where the serfs lived and worked that could be the size of a courtyard or the size of a small village (Armitage 1904). When surrounded by an embankment and a ditch, the complex was known as the motte-and-bailey. Motte-and-bailey fortification became an extremely useful resource for deterring Anglo-Saxon resistance and preventing other uprisings. In England, the motte-and-bailey castle did not have much aesthetic beauty or architectural distinction; it was simply the military-based structure adapted to secure the lands acquired by the Normans. As a matter of fact, the earliest of the fortifications (figure 2) were not constructed of stone, they were made of wood stakes and beams.

Figure 2. A representation of an early wooden motte-and-bailey style fortification that the Normans would have built.

While the wooden castles erected by William and his vassals served their immediate purpose of deterring revolt, these wooden fortifications were vulnerable to weathering and to fire. The Normans began to fortify their motte-and-bailey castles by incorporating stonewalls and stone keeps that were elaborately carved (King 1988). The most famous wooden motte-and-bailey castle built by William himself, the White Tower, was located near central London and became known as the Tower of London.

Stone keeps were erected by the Normans as more permanent structures designed to gain military dominance over England. These stone structures paved the way for developments in siege warfare. Weapons were developed that could damage the stone defences of motte-and-bailey keeps. Castles were made even stronger to defend against siege weapons resulting in a type of arms race between attackers and defenders.

Figure 3. Crenellated walls on top of a castle provided an area of cover from which archers could shoot arrows at their enemies.

Crenellated walls (figure 3) built with stone merlons were used to protect archers from projectiles as they fired upon enemy soldiers below the parapet. Castles were also built in what was known as the concentric type of castle building. A concentric castle has an outer wall surrounding an interior walled structure to form a castle within a castle (Pounds 1990). This architectural type that became especially popular in Wales, was designed by James of St. George who was employed by King Edward I (r. 1272-1307) (Pounds 1990). The advantage of this style was to limit access to the interior once the outer wall was breached. The enemy soldiers would reach a dead zone between the walls where they would be bombarded with arrows and stones released from the crenellated walls of the castle. These concentric castles were also employed as defensive gatehouses to protect the entrances of larger fortresses.

The size and strength of castles increased dramatically during the Medieval period, and this was due in a large part to the race against the technology of siege weapons developed to sack fortified structures. But another change in castle architecture that took place had nothing to do with defence, castles began to be regarded as aesthetic structures and sites to enhance social status. Cultural factors began to influence the appearance of castles affecting everything from the type of stones used to construct the massive buildings to the sculptural objects employed to ornament the site such as statuary placed at water spouts.

The Norman motte-and-bailey castle was practical and defensive through and through. The sites of the wooden and stone motte-and-bailey castles were built to subdue the populace and provided the Normans with resources to rule over the English people. The Normans built large, thick stone castles in the Romanesque style around the keeps using huge, heavy, clean cut-stone. The most prominent feature of these Norman castles was the stone vaulting constructed to support stone roofs (which also eradicated the fire hazard of grass or thatch roof construction). The Romanesque castle had round arches and buttresses that supported thick walls. The windows in Romanesque castles had to be kept very small so that the walls would have the strength needed to support the extremely heavy stone ceilings (Pounds 1990). Norman castles were built with such Romanesque features to serve a military purpose and to inspire awe and fear.

As the culture in England changed, so did the castles. During the late fourteenth century heavy and compact Romanesque castles were replaced by sleek, tall Gothic castles. The pointed arch and flying buttress made Gothic structures more stable, and the builders used that stability to take castle construction to literally new heights. The main characteristic of Gothic castles was their height, which far surpassed that of any of the earlier Romanesque designs (Pounds 1990). Gothic builders also began carving the stone, which led to more precision in terms of the size of the cut stones and to greater ornamentation. Simple waterspouts that were used to keep the foundations of the castle dry became elaborate sculptures of demons and creatures known as gargoyles.

Another advantage of the vaulting system and stability of the walls of the Gothic castles was the opportunity to use larger windows. This, in turn, let in more light and kept the castle warmer and drier. Late Gothic adapted fan vaulting (Pounds 1990). Fan vaulting (figure 4) combined several pointed vaults to create a strong ceiling with elaborate decoration. However, it was in Gothic cathedrals that fan vaulting allowed the churches to reach heights that were unimaginable before.

Figure 4. Fan vaulting.

The appearance of the castle became much more important as it was regarded as a manifestation of wealth, social status, and taste. Nobles were no longer building castles for defensive purposes as much as to impress other nobles and the public. As a result of the trend of building opulent castles that functioned as private residences, castles were built in obscure locations that had no military advantages. The castle became a showplace for aristocrats.

The different types of construction used for castles in England can be seen in the evolution of the Tower of London. The Tower is located on the spot previously occupied by William the Conqueror’s motte-and-bailey castle. Over time it was transformed into a well-fortified castle encompassing just about every innovation made in castle architecture. The different stages of building show its transition from a motte-and-bailey castle to the concentric castle of today.

The Tower of London started as a motte-and-bailey castle built strategically on the bank of the River Thames near central London to keep the English population in check and assure William the Conqueror firm military control over the important city. As soon as he was crowned king, William ordered a stone castle to be built to replace the wooden motte-and-bailey castle, and that castle was dubbed the White Tower after it was completed in 1097.

The White Tower, with its thick walls and impressive dimensions, was built in the early Norman Romanesque style (Figure 5). The windows are small and with rounded arches, which are staples of Romanesque architecture. The buttresses lining the White Tower’s walls are Romanesque; they are not the flying buttresses characteristic of the Gothic style. Built just after King William took the throne, the White Tower was a Norman castle right in the center of London.

Figure 5. The White Tower in modern day London still retains its Norman characteristics.

The White Tower was transformed into a concentric castle during the reign of Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and his son Edward I (r. 1272-1307), a patron who also commissioned concentric castles in Wales. As a concentric castle, The Tower boasted a new outer wall and several new gatehouses and defence towers. Moats and embankments were developed around the structure. The outermost walls and defence towers of the fortress no longer retained the round, arched openings and windows and instead were built with pointed arch windows, characteristic of the Gothic style of architecture. The differences in the window style in the White Tower and in the outer walls of the whole fortified structure show the change in taste over the years. The stone used, the ornamentation, and the shape of the towers differ in treatment, allow the visitor walking through the Tower the London to survey castle architecture as it developed in Britain.

The Tower, like most English castles was used as a residential building. The Tower served as a royal accommodation with a large great hall and several royal kitchens (Simon 1995). Despite its role as a residence, the Tower still continued to serve as a prison and execution chamber. Throughout its history it was prison for many famous prisoners, and this may be its most infamous role. During the British Renaissance English citizens such as Sir Thomas Moore, Lady Jane Grey, Thomas Cromwell, and even Elizabeth I, the future Queen of England were imprisoned in the Tower, the same place where some of them were executed.

The Tower of London (figure 6) can be seen as a model of all of the changes in castle architecture that have taken place in England. Yet each English castle has its own unique story to tell and is part of a rich tradition. Walking through a castle, or even the ruins of one, lets you truly experience the imposing presence of the architecture and appreciate the role castles have had in making England the nation it has become today.

Figure 6. The Tower of London


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